Southern Baptists, an Unregenerate Denomination

by Jim Elliff

"How are you doing?"

"Pretty well, under the circumstances."

"What are the circumstances?"

"Well, I have a very effective arm. It moves with quite a bit of animation. But then I have my bad leg."

"What's wrong with it?"

"I guess it's paralyzed. At least it doesn't do much except twitch once a week or so, but that's nothing compared with the rest of me."

"What's the problem?

"From all appearances, the rest is dead. At least it stinks and bits of flesh are always falling off. I keep it well covered. About all that's left beyond that is my mouth, which fortunately works just fine. How about you?"

Like the unfortunate person above, the Southern Baptist Convention has a name that it is alive, but is in fact, mostly dead (Rev. 3:1). Regardless of the wonderful advances in our commitment to the Bible, a closer look reveals a denomination that is more like a corpse than a fit athlete prepared for the run of his life. In an unusual way, understanding this awful reality provides the most exciting prospects for the future if we act decisively.

The Facts

Out of Southern Baptist's nearly 15.9 million members, only 5.2 million, or 32.8%, even bother to show up on a given Sunday morning, according to the Strategic Information and Planning department of the Sunday School Board (1997). If your church is anything like normal, and is not brand new, your statistics are probably similar. In the average church, one can cut that 32.8% by about two-thirds to find those interested in any additional aspect of church life, such as a Sunday evening service. In other words, only about a third of the 32.8% or slightly more than a tenth of the whole (12.3% in churches with evening services in 1996, the last year for which statistics are available) show more interest in the things of God than Sunday morning attenders in the liberal church down the street where the gospel is not even preached. These figures suggest that nearly 90% of Southern Baptist church members appear to be little different from the "cultural Christians" who populate mainline denominations.

Let me illustrate in rounded figures by looking at some of the churches I have preached in recently. Each could be any Baptist church in any city. In one church there were an amazing 2000 in attendance on Sunday morning; but 7000 on the roll and a mere 600–700 on Sunday evenings. Take out the guests and this represents less than 10% of the membership. Another church had 2100 on the roll, with 725 coming on Sunday morning. Remove guests and non-member children and that figure drops to 600. Only about a third of those members come out on Sunday evening. Representing less than 10% of the membership.

Another church has 310 on the roll with nearly 100 who attend on Sunday morning. Only 30–35, or approximately 10%, come to the evening worship services. These are all considered fine churches, and have an extremely competent level of leadership and vision. Some shut-ins and those who are sick or out of town, slightly affect the figures, but not enough to change the bleak picture, especially when we remember that these numbers represent the people who have been baptized. What do these figures, general as they are, suggest?

Missing Christians are No Christians

First, these figures reveal that most of the people on our rolls give little evidence that they love the brethren—a clear sign of being unregenerate (1 Jn. 3:14). It is impossible to believe that anything like real familial love exists in the hearts of people who do not come or only nominally check in as a cultural exercise. Love is the greatest mark of a genuine believer (1 Jn. 3: 14–19).

Second, these numbers suggest that those who do not come or only come as morning attenders, are more interested in themselves than God. To put it in Paul's words, they are "fleshly-minded" and not "spiritually-minded" (Rom. 8: 5–9). The atmosphere that most pleases them is that of the world and not God. They can stand as much of God as makes them feel better about themselves. But beyond that, they will politely refuse to get involved. For some that is an Easter service now and then; for others it is a Pharisaical and sterile trip to church every Sunday morning.

Though these people have "prayed the prayer" and "walked the aisle," and been told they are Christians, old things have not really passed away, and new things have not come. They are not new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5: 17). In too many cases obvious signs of an unregenerate heart can be found, such as long-term adultery, fornication, greed, divisiveness. These are "professing believers" which the Bible says are deceived. (See 1 Cor. 6: 9–11; Gal. 5: 19–21; 6: 7–8; Eph. 5: 5–6; Titus 1:16; 1 Jn. 3: 4–10; etc.)

Jesus indicated that there is a good soil which is receptive to the gospel seed so as to produce a fruit-bearing plant, but that the rocky ground believer only appears to be saved. The latter shows immediate joy, but soon withers away (Mt. 13: 6, 21). This temporary kind of faith (which is not saving faith, see 1 Cor. 15: 1–2) is rampant among Southern Baptists. But Baptists believe that saving faith is persistent to the end. We believe in the preservation and perseverance of the saints (once saved, always persevering). If a man's faith does not persevere then what he possesses is something less than saving faith.

In John 2: 23–25 Jesus was the center-piece for what turned out to be a mass evangelism experience in which a large number of people believed in Him. Yet he did not entrust Himself to even one of them because "he knew their hearts." Is it possible that we have taken in millions of such "unrepenting believers" whose hearts have not been changed? I say that we have. Our denomination, as much as we may love it, is on the main unregenerate. If you double, triple or quadruple my assessment of how many are true believers, we still have a gigantic problem. It is naive to believe otherwise.

There are those who would say that such people are "carnal Christians" and don't deserve to be thought of as unregenerate. It is true that the Corinthian believers (about whom this phrase was used, see 1 Cor. 3: 1–3) acted "like mere men" in their party spirit. Christians can commit any sin short of that which is unpardonable.

Undoubtedly, however, Paul did suspect that some of the Corinthians were unbelievers, for he later warns them about such a possibility in 2 Cor. 12: 20–13: 5. A long-term and unrepentant state of carnality, is, after all, the very description of the unregenerate (Rom. 8: 5–14, 1 Jn. 3: 4–10, etc.). In calling some people "carnal" Paul did not mean to imply that he was accepting as Christian a lifestyle that he clearly describes as unbelieving in other passages. He wrote in the same book: "Do you now know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. Do not be deceived" (1 Cor. 6: 9–11, etc.). Apparently there were some, even then, who were deceived into thinking that an unrighteous man or woman who professes faith in Christ could really be a Christian!

Is Follow-up the Problem?

A great mistake is made by blaming the problem on poor follow-up. In many churches there is every intention and effort given to follow-up and still the numbers persist. One church followed up "by the book" the people who had been told they were new converts from a crusade of an internationally-known evangelist. The report of the pastor in charge was that none of them wanted to talk about how to grow as a Christian. He said, "They ran from us!"

I have known some churches to go to extreme efforts to disciple new believers. I applaud that, but, like the others, they generally have marginal success. They have learned to accept the fact that people who profess to become Christians often have to be talked into going further, and that many, if not most, simply will not bother. Authentic new believers can be followed up because they have the Spirit by which they cry, "Abba Father" (Rom. 8:15). But you cannot follow-up on a spiritually dead person.

It was the preaching of regeneration, with an explanation of its discernible marks, that was the heart of the Great Awakening. J. C. Ryle, in writing of the eighteenth century revival preachers said that they never for a moment believed that there was any true conversion if it was not accompanied with personal holiness. Such content was the staple of the greatest of awakening preaching throughout the history of revival. Only such a powerful cannon blast could rock the bed of those asleep in Zion.

Facing the Dilemma

What must be done? I suggest five responses. First we must preach and teach on the subject. Every author in the New Testament writes of the nature of deception. Some books give major consideration to the subject. Jesus Himself, spoke profusely about true and false conversion, giving significant attention to the fruit found in true believers (Jn. 10: 26–27; Mt. 7: 21–23; Mt. 25: 1–13, etc.). If this creates doubt in people, you should not see this negatively. One friend told me, "Doubts never sent anyone to hell, but deception always does." They will work through their doubts if we continue to preach the truth. All doubts are not of the devil, contrary to popular opinion. Speak truthfully the whole counsel of God. You cannot "unsave" true believers.

It is true that there will be those who are overly scrupulous and overwhelmed by such examination, but most are too self-confident and have based their assurances on such foolish platforms as that of praying a perfectly worded "sinner's prayer." Patient teaching and care will help them to overcome doubt if they are truly regenerate. Never forget, however, that quiet, sensitive people can be deceived also.

Second, we must address the issue of persistent sin among our members, including the sin of failure to attend the stated meetings of the church. This must be done by reestablishing the forgotten practice of church discipline. Each church should have by-laws which state just what will happen when a member falls into sin, including the sin of non-attendance or very nominal attendance. Everyone in the church, including new members, should be very familiar with the biblical steps of church discipline. Jesus said that a person who was lovingly, but firmly, disciplined by the church, and yet failed to repent, should be thought of as "a heathen and a tax collector" (see Mt. 18: 15-17). Though David committed atrocious sins, he was a repenter at heart (see 2 Sam. 12:13; Psalm 51). Every Christian is a life-long repenter and church discipline brings this out.

We must also get into the homes of all our church members, seeking either to bring them to Christ, or to reluctantly release them to the world which they love more than Christ. This is basic pastoral labor.

We are never to pluck the supposed tares from the wheat (Mt. 13: 24–30; 36–43), as if we had absolute knowledge. We might be mistaken. However, loving church discipline is a careful process by which the sinner in essence removes himself by his resistance to correction. The church is made up of repenting saints, not rebelling sinners.

Thirdly, we should be more careful on the front end of church membership. In my estimation, the public altar call (a modern invention) often reaps people prematurely. We have used it because of our genuine zeal to see the lost converted. Though sacrosanct to Baptists, careful study should be done related to the use of it evangelistically. For eighteen hundred years the church did not use such a method until its principle originator Charles Finney promoted his "new measures." Instead, they were intent on letting conviction play a greater part in conversion. They needed no props for the gospel, but put their confidence in the preached Word and the Holy Spirit. Baptist giant, C. H. Spurgeon, for instance, saw thousands converted without its use. His message was his invitation.

We don't need better methods to get people down to the front, but more unction in our preaching. You cannot beat sinners away from Christ when God is bringing them in. (see Jn. 6:37) When as many as 70–90% of those responding are giving little if any evidence of being saved beyond their first weeks or months of emotional excitement, then questions should be asked. Forget the fact, if you must, that there is no clear biblical precedent; merely look at this issue pragmatically. It is not helping us.

Also, more careful counsel should be taken with those entering in as members of other churches. The foolish practice of receiving new members immediately after they walk the aisle should be abandoned. And much deeper thinking must be done concerning childhood conversion. A very large percentage of childhood professions wash out later in the teen and college years (the more independent, the more they live out their true nature).

Fourthly, we must stop giving immediate verbal assurance to people who have hopefully been converted. It is the Holy Spirit's job to give assurance. We are to give the basis upon which assurance can be had, not the assurance itself. Study 1 John in this respect. What things were written so that they might know they have eternal life? (1 Jn. 5: 13) Answer: The tests given in the book.

Finally, we must restore sound doctrine. Revival, I am finding as I study its history, is largely about the recovery of the gospel. The three great doctrines which have so often shown up in revival are God's sovereignty in salvation, justification by grace through faith alone, and regeneration with discernible fruit. Revival is God showing up, but the blessing of the presence of God is directly affected by our beliefs. God most often comes in the context of the great doctrines preached with the unction of the Holy Spirit, penetratingly and faithfully.

As an illustration of our doctrinal reductionism, repentance is often forgotten completely in gospel presentations, or else it is understood only to mean "admitting that you are a sinner." "Inviting Christ into the heart," a phrase never found in the Bible (study the context of Jn. 1:12 and Rev. 3:20, the only verses used for this), has taken the place of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. The doctrine of God's judgment is rarely preached with any carefulness, and the cross, as a comprehensive study, is seldom heard. Merely looking over the titles of the sermons awakening preachers preached in the past would surprise most modern pastors.

Be Healthy or Be Ashamed

Which army would you rather have? Gideon's first army or his last? No church, and no denomination, should call itself healthy if there are not more people coming to the stated meetings than are on the rolls. This is a standard kept by most of the world and by our great-grandparents as well. We would be closer to the revival we desire if we would admit our failures as churches and as a denomination, humbly hang our heads, and seek to rectify this awful hindrance to God's blessing. We are bragging about our shame.

The next time someone asks how your church and your denomination are doing, tell the truth. We have a new confidence in the inerrant Bible, seminaries that promote orthodoxy, and new evangelistic fervor among the true believers (we have a lot to be excited about) but when considered as a whole, Southern Baptists need raising from the dead.

Jim Elliff is the resident consultant for the Midwestern Center for Biblical Revival at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is president of Christian Communicators Worldwide. He speaks to conferences in the states and overseas, and often leads churches and pastors in the subject addressed above. For additional free booklets on this subject, write Christian Communicators Worldwide, 5001 N. Oak Trfy., Kansas City, MO 64118. (816) 453–6903.